“What We Do in the Shadows” is effective vampire parody (and quite funny)
The mainstream parody film has nearly been obliterated in the last 15 years, starting with “Scary Movie” back in 2000 and continuing to “The Starving Games” in 2013. For whatever reason, most of these films try to recreate the brilliance found in 1980’s “Airplane,” a film formula that was only destined to work once, no matter how many sequels were forced on the public.
Suffice to say, if a film is a direct parody of a popular film franchise, it is most likely not worth your time or money. There are exceptions, of course: classic Mel Brooks, films by Edgar Wright, the occasional independent film like “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.” Comedy is especially hard and within the genre, parody is likely the most difficult.
It’s easy for the films found in the “Scary Movie” franchise to lose sight of their purpose in favor of cheap, easy laughs. The most successful parody films in recent years have avoided this trap by focusing their attention on creating more believable characters rather than having stereotypes drop one gag after another. This is the aim of “What We Do in the Shadows,” an effective and funny vampire parody from the minds of Jermaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) and Taika Waititi.
Set in modern-day New Zealand, the film uses a “Real World” style documentary/reality television conceit to tell the story of four vampire flatmates. Each character represents a vampire tradition: Viago (Waititi) and Deacon ( Jonathan Brugh) are distinctly Anne Rice, Louis-and-Lestat-style vampires who are younger and more in tune with the world, if only slightly. Vladislav (Clement) is more of the Bram Stoker variety, a former count with a penchant for poking and torture. Petyr represents the even older, more monstrous, “Nosferatu” vampire, the one that sleeps in a stone coffin and haunts rather than interacts. The four share a dilapidated Victorian house in New Zealand, arguing over chores and clothing.
Popular vampire myths are explored throughout the film, placing them in the context of minor annoyances—it’s hard to lure victims away from the nightclubs when you have to be invited in by the bouncer and even when you’re successful, no amount of newspaper will protect your furniture when you accidentally hit a major artery. The film follows the vampires through their day-to-day lives, their manipulative interactions with familiars, their uneasy hypnotism of the local police, and their frustration with a fledgling member of their coven who refuses to stop telling people he’s a vampire.
“What We Do in the Shadows” is deftly funny. The material is solid and the writing never meanders away from the intended point, namely that it’s hard to be a vampire in a modern world. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to wander into quickly dated pop culture references or tired one liners. Instead, the film understands the characters and forces them to exist within their own mythos.
They generally know very little about the outside world and act and respond as vampires would. There is a sharp focus on the traditional vampire tropes—we get the impression that many of these ideas are knowingly perpetuated by the vampires themselves, influenced by their own stereotypes and a desire to live within them (they prey on virgins because it sounds cool and certain stylistic choices in their rituals come directly from “The Lost Boys”). The humor in the film works because the characters remain consistent throughout.
If there is a drawback to the film, it’s that the running time is relatively short. In most cases, I’m thrilled when a film stays near the 90-minute mark, but “What We Do in the Shadows” left me wanting more. However, the film is well paced and adding more to it wouldn’t necessarily serve to enhance the story. It’s better that the filmmaker left off where they did.
Hopefully, there isn’t a sequel in the works, and the film will continue to stand alone as an excellent addition to a particularly barren landscape of parody film. If anything, it shows that the filmmakers can make a good parody, which is encouraging for future projects.
“What We Do in the Shadows” had two screenings at the Chattanooga Film Festival, both of which were well received. It is unlikely to receive a wide release; however, it will be available on VOD and DVD within the month. It’s likely to be one of the year’s best comedies and well worth a look.